Sexual assault and harassment in STEM: we can no longer afford to be silent

Last summer, I wrote a blog post about my 20th anniversary of attending the Joint Statistical Meetings (JSM) for the first time, in which I alluded to the fact that I had been sexually assaulted during the meeting. I made the comment in passing, but didn’t give it much attention. Until now. I share my story, in hopes that it will prompt others to do so. Without knowing the depth of the problem, we cannot solve it.

Before I tell my story, I want to provide some definitions, so we’re on the same page. Sexual harassment, as defined by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, includes “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.”  The Department of Justice defines sexual assault as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient,” although legal definitions may vary by state and are subject to interpretation.

During my first JSM, one of the sessions I attended was presentations by students who had won travel awards. As I was currently a student, I was interested in how I could eventually win one of those awards. So after the talks ended, I went and spoke to the session organizer, who happened to be a very well known statistician, who I’ll call “Dr. X.” Dr. X was very kind and told me about the process by which the student travel award winners were chosen – we had a nice conversation about recognizing student work at the meetings, and I left and went to the next set of talks (likely about statistics in sports). And that was that. Throughout the rest of the day, I kept running into Dr. X around the conference – not surprising since it a relatively small conference.

Later that day, I went to the conference Expo, a collection of agencies, companies and publishers who are interested in advertising to the attendees at the conference. I had a goal – I was interested in learning about summer internships at the CDC. I spent a while speaking with the guys at the CDC table about what opportunities they had available, how you apply, and other details about what a CDC internship would entail. It was exciting and I was all ready to apply!

Each year at the JSM, there is a dance. I always try to attend it, initially because it was quite entertaining to watch a bunch of old white guys trying to dance, but more recently because there are a lot more young folks who come to dance and it’s fun! This being my first JSM, I had no idea what to expect at the dance, but my classmates and I attended. During the course of the evening, I happened to run into the guys from the CDC, who happened to be talking to Dr. X. I said hello, and stood and listened to their discussions. Apparently, Dr. X was coming to give a short course at the CDC, and they were discussing the details.

The tone of the conversation changed when Dr. X started asking about which strip clubs they would be visiting during his trip to Atlanta. Never one to keep my opinion to myself, I quickly spoke up and suggested that maybe that wasn’t an appropriate conversation to be having. Dr. X smiled at me, patted me on my ass, and walked away. I was stunned… I had no idea how to react, what to say. The guys from the CDC were astonished. “How do you know Dr. X?” they asked me. “I just met him this afternoon,” I replied, still stunned. And that was that. I knew I wasn’t going to apply to their group for an internship at the CDC. I knew that they were judging me based on the actions of Dr. X. Even though I didn’t ask for it. Even though I didn’t invite it. Even though I was just being curious and thoughtful. I was being judged by his actions. And I was lucky – I’ve now worked over 20 years in a field in which I am sometimes still the only woman in the room, and this is the only time that I’d experienced that kind of unwanted physical interaction. It could have been so much worse, and for many women it is.

The ramifications of that seemingly minor incident were broad. I was on guard the rest of the conference, skulking away if Dr. X approached, afraid of appearing as if I were inviting him to treat me as he had. I ruled out applying to a very good PhD program because he was on faculty at that institution. Statistics is a very small world, though, and other occasions to encounter Dr. X would arise. In fact, when I did start my PhD the following year, Dr. X came to give a seminar. At my request, several of my classmates and I staged a quiet boycott and did not attend his talk; however, I never told any one with any influence what had happened. I know of others who have encountered similar sexual assault, seemingly minor yet having major impact. All seemed to be in situations where the man had power over us – Professor/Student types of dynamics. We all felt that we were helpless, and that any action we took could result in repercussions in our career.

These feelings are not unusual among women in science who experience sexual harassment or assault, and reports of sexual harassment in science are rampant. An Atlantic article quotes one source that indicates 1 in 3 women science professors report being sexually harassed. In another article, over a quarter of women who responded to a survey regarding sexual assault and harassment during field experiences reported being sexually assaulted, and this occurred much more frequently among female trainees than faculty. While there are clear limitations to this research, it does speak to the problem of the mistreatment of women in STEM fields, particularly when the women is in a subordinate role to the man. A recent sexual harassment case at UC Berkeley has shined even more light on this issue, highlighted in an NPR story which also reinforces the idea that women, especially students and trainees, are afraid to report these instances of harassment and assault because of fear of career repercussions, fear of retribution, fear of being labeled. A quick Google search shows numerous articles that tell the same story – women are afraid to report harassment and assault because of jeopardizing their careers. The same reasons I was silent.

What can we do to improve the situation for women in STEM fields? First of all, we must no longer be silent. We all have a responsibility to report harassment and assault, to stand up for those who are vulnerable. We must have a zero tolerance policy for these actions. No matter how impressive their research, we cannot continue to allow people who harass and assault others to remain in their positions, particularly if they are in positions of power. We must train faculty in appropriate workplace conduct, and insist that they uphold our standards. Finally, we must insist that people with influence – Department Chairs, Deans – take allegations of sexual misconduct seriously, and take swift and appropriate actions.

In retrospect, it’s hard for me to believe that this actually happened to me. I like to think of myself as a strong, independent woman. I like to believe that I think quickly, and all these years later, I’m still disappointed that I didn’t react. I hope that in the future, should I be in a similar situation, I’m able to react in some way, either verbally or through a physical response (e.g. a swift kick to the balls). My lack of reaction or response could have signaled to Dr. X that it was okay to behave in this fashion, and encouraged him to act this way towards others. I think I was just so caught off guard that a prominent person in my field would think to treat me like that, and to do so in the presence of others. As I my presence and reputation grow in my field, I hope that I am never perceived as taking advantage of my position of power over another person, and I hope that I’m able to use my position to protect others from these types of interactions.

Many stories of sexual harassment and assault among women scientists end with: “And that is why I am no longer in my STEM field.” That could have been me. I could have dropped out of my program, or decided not to pursue my PhD. I could currently be blissfully planning weddings for bridezillas, or teaching math to moody high school students. And what a shame that would be – I love what I do, and would have missed the opportunity to positively influence others in my field. But as long as we allow sexual misconduct to continue in the sciences, we will continue to lose our future leaders.

If you’ve been the victim of sexual assault, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673 or chat online at,

Play the Game – Part 2

In my last blog post, I talked about my experience searching for my first assistant professor job, and talked about being on a search committee. I left off describing how the process was like a game, except that as a candidate, you don’t get to play the whole game. All of that changes as Department Chair.

As Department Chair, I now get to play the game from start to finish, and the game looks REALLY different. The game has seemingly different instructions and is far more stressful than it ever was before. So here’s what the whole game looks like, from the seat I now sit in.

The game starts when you have to write the job posting. Well, that is, after you’ve received approval from the Dean to have the search, who in turn received approval from the Provost. Who probably asked God’s permission… The job posting has to sound appealing to applicants and must differentiate your position from the possibly hundreds of others out there. I’ve always felt fortunate when interviewing to be in a field in which there are still so many job opportunities, but now I just see it as more competition for good candidates! If we’re interviewing good people, the competition is also interviewing these folks… and what if other institutions started earlier? What if they have more money available to attract top candidates? Might they snatch up our candidate before we even get a chance to interview him/her? What if they take our “perfect fit”?


Next, you have to choose a search committee. This is the group of faculty (and sometimes staff and students) who you are entrusting to make important decisions on behalf of the Department in a timely fashion. They put in a lot of time reviewing CVs, publications, letters of reference, and personal statements, and from a lot of candidates. They are the first line of defense, often having the first contact with the candidates. It is not a trivial commitment of time or effort. The search committee must represent the diversity of the department in every sense of the word. I am currently in a department that comprises two disciplines, so the difficulty in finding the right balance of faculty is compounded.

After the search committee reviews all of the applications, the committee then typically does 30 minute Skype/phone pre-interviews with a subset of the applicants – sometimes as many as 20, which can help narrow down the pool to thoroulettese that have real interest in our Department, who have good communication skills, and who ask well thought out questions. Based on these initial contacts, the committee then determines who will be invited for an on-campus interview.

On-campus interviews are a time-intensive endeavor for the departmental faculty: there are meals to be had, individual meetings to be had, seminars to attend. Also, someone has to organize the troops and make sure all travel, scheduling and room arrangements are made (shout out to the BEST STAFF EVER). As the Department Chair, I spend a lot of time with each candidate. I try to see the candidate at the beginning of their visit, so that I can provide them with the context they need to appropriately evaluate us. I give them a guided tour of their itinerary, so that they have a good knowledge of who everyone is and how they fit into the Department. I go to their 20-questionsseminar, and I have to pay better attention than I’ve ever had to pay during a talk before. I want to be able to really evaluate their ability to explain their research, but even more, I want to be able to evaluate their ability to answer questions (which means I have to be able to formulate an intelligent question). The seminar is extremely important – not only does it give us some indication of the candidate’s research abilities, it also give us some idea of how they would be in the classroom. I also like to meet with the candidates at the end of the day to recap their visit, answer any lingering questions they may have, and let them know our timeline and next steps as best I can. Because I spend so much time with them, I get to know them quite well.

And then it gets even more difficult. We have to make a decision. If we’re lucky, we’ve had several outstanding candidates visit, and now we have to try to figure out who has the highest chance of being successful in our Department. The search committee collects feedback, makes a recommendation to me, and it is my responsibility to decide who uno-cardsreceives our first offer. This is tricky – we may be competing with other department for the same candidates. Some already have offers pending by the time they receive our offer. Also, I have to reconcile the recommendations of the search committee with my opinions, which may or may not coincide. We have a shared goal of moving the Department forward and bringing in faculty who we think will be successful, but we may have different views on who could best contribute to our mission. I don’t want to do wrong by Department, and I feel like a have a great responsibility to them, but I also don’t want to do wrong by the candidates. I want to ensure we’re hiring a candidate who has a high probability of being successful in our Department.

The hardest part of this process for me is telling candidates that we are NOT going to offer them a job. I know, and I hope the candidates know, that just because we’re not offering them a job doesn’t mean that they weren’t outstanding. Because I spend a lot of time with the candidates, I get to know them and often become quite fond of them, and so I want to see them all be successful. And while I recognize that it is strictly a business transaction, the lines between business and friendship can be blurred. This is especially true in my field, which is a very small world, and often friends are applying to positions in my Department. I know I will see the candidates again at conferences and will encounter them in other venues, so I want to be sure that I build bridges regardless of whether I hire them.

All of that being said, it is definitely exciting to be able to make a job offer to someone At the same time, it is scary! What if they don’t like us enough, what if we don’t offer enough money, what if they “swipe left”? There are so many different emotions at play. When I get on the phone with a candidate I’ve just made an offer to, I’m guessing that I’m just as nervous as they are! Is the candidate going to tell me that they have another offer – a better offer? Are there unknowns that I hadn’t thought of? Maybe there are collaborators I should have introduced them to around the University that would have made our Department more attractive? If they’re a senior recruit, we need to determine whether they are eligible for tenure at our institution, a whole process in and of itself. Maybe they also have a two-body problem? Perhaps they’re worried about finding good schools for their children? What if the Provost doesn’t approve the offer we want to make? While I’m hoping that we find a new faculty member that we can help grow and succeed, I have to remember that each faculty candidate has their own definition of fit, and we may not be it.

And then… game ogame overver, because our candidate has accepted our offer. Or is it? If the first offer doesn’t work out, it’s back to the drawing board. Again, hopefully we’ve interviewed several outstanding candidates. If we’re fortunate, the next outstanding candidate on our list has not yet accepted another position. So the game starts again. What will this candidate need to be successful? Will we be able to attract him or her? Will the Provost approve this letter? So many things to think about, so many rules to the game, and they are always changing.

Ultimately, we all hope to win the game. To me, a win means that not only did we hire someone, we hired someone who will be an asset to the Department, and to whom the Department will be an asset. The process is long, expensive, and exhausting. It is a lot of fun, but also fraught with emotion. But like with any game, you can’t win if you don’t play!


Play the Game – Part 1

In Pennsylvania, deer hunting season opens in October. This is a big deal if you’re a hunter (I’m not), something you’ve looked forward to all year. It’s also a big deal if you’re a hiker (I am) – you’d better be careful to wear your hunter orange when you go for a walk in the woods, you don’t want to get mistaken for a buck.


In academics, around the same time, recruiting seasons opens. This is the time when bright-eyed and bushy tailed graduate students and post-docs look for their dream job, and where departments seek to fill a coveted tenure-track position. It’s a little bit of a hunt, a little bit like match-making, a little bit of a game, and a lot of stress. I’ve gone through the process as a job candidate, a search committee member, and now as a Department chair, and I can tell you that this academic match making, this process of finding a perfect fit, of finding a 10-point buck looks very different depending on where you sit.

gameoflifeOnce upon a time, there was a younger, wiser version of me. In my late 20s, I’d been in school for a very long time, and on the verge of finally graduating for my last time. My husband and I had a baby about 10 months before we defended our dissertations, and I was ready to get out of school, find a real job, and be able to afford to feed my child. So I started my first academic job search. I applied for 5 positions, all tenure track. One was close to family and an alma mater, so I had emotional ties to the area. Another was also an alma mater, again emotionally appealing. All were different: one was in a Department of Preventive Medicine, two were in a medical schools, and two were in Departments of Biostatistics, in Schools of Public Health. It was good that they were different as it allowed me to try to determine where the right “fit” was. Fit. That elusive, indescribable thing we’re all trying to find in jobs and in life. For me, it was important to find an environment in which I could be successful – a place that values the skills I excelled at. It was also important for me to find a place in which I was comfortable socially. I knew I’d be spending a lot of time at work and wanted to be in a place where I’d have fun.

clue-cover-banner-1I was invited for on-campus interviews at 4 of the 5 places I applied. The first place I went was the one closest to my family, which was helpful since I was exclusively nursing my 4-month-old daughter at the time. It ended up being a good practice round for me – a good way to learn the rules of the game. They didn’t offer me a job, and it is probably for the best. I likely would have accepted it mainly because of location, and not for the other aspects of fit I was looking for.

Overall, I found the interview process to very different from what I’d expected. I thought it would be extremely stressful, and well… it was definitely stressful. I was still nursing my daughter for 2 of my other interviews, so needed to ask for breaks in my schedule for pumping. My doctoral advisor (a man in his 60s) told me that I wouldn’t want to work somewhere that wasn’t willing to accommodate me – maybe some of the most important advice he gave me during my job search. And while everyone was accommodating, it did add stress to an already stressful process.

But I was surprised by how much fun I had interviewing. I enjoyed the opportunity to meet new people, to learn about different departments and their values. I was interested to hear who felt that there was work/life balance at the institution (often getting conflicting answers within the same institution), and what research was going on where. cranium-boxI learned a lot from the interview process, lessons that I’ve carried forward with me throughout my career, such as how to answer questions with poise even when I had no idea what the person was asking. I learned how small a world biostatistics is, and how people are just people, no matter how many books they’ve written, how many theorems are named after them, or how much black they wear.

And in the end, just like every game, you win some and you lose some. I was fortunate to have been offered jobs from 3 of the 4 places I interviewed, and even more fortunate that one of the offers came from somewhere that felt like the best fit.

The next stage of the game: negotiation. I was terrible at this part of the game. I didn’t know what to ask for and didn’t know that practically everything is negotiable. And really, after nearly 9 years in graduate school, any real salary felt like a million bucks! Luckily, my pay-day
new chair was fair to me, and my offer contained a very competitive salary, relative to the other offers I received. This is extremely important, because salary increases are typically based on a % of your current salary, so if you start low, it is difficult to make it up over time.

So I accepted the offer and marched off into the sunset, right? If only life was so easy. You see, I have a two-body problem – my husband also needed to find an academic position. However, we got extremely lucky. We won the game! He found a position at the same institution, and so off we rode, into the sunset.
Fast forward a few years, and now Assistant Professor StatGirl is on a pizza-mathsearch committee. What a different process! Now, it was my job to help decide who would come visit our department and make recommendations about to whom we should off
er the position. I got to help court the candidates. Again, it was fun for me, for many of the same reasons as when I was interviewing. I learned some interesting new statistical methods. I got to eat dinner at some of the best restaurants in town. And when it was done, the committee made our recommendations, and it was out of our hands. I met some really interesting people, many of whom took other jobs, but people I still call my colleagues and friends – the ones who got away!

And that was that. I didn’t think about what came before the search committee. I didn’t think about what would happen if no one accepted our offer. Because I didn’t understand the entire process. I didn’t get the chance to play the whole game. Stay tuned for part 2 – in which I tell you about the rest of the game.

Why do we do the things we do?

A recent episode of “The Effort Report” – this really great podcast that you should listen to if you’re not already (and I’m not just saying that because they mentioned my blog) – focused on academic affluenza. Essentially, the discussion was about what happens after you get tenured and promoted… what options do you have for career growth and development? One path is the administrative path, and on the podcast, Roger Peng wondered why people seek out Department Chair positions, which he referred to as “highly coveted.” Since I was one of those people who sought out a Department Chair position, I thought why would make a good blog post.

Beforerodnick-shark-chair-625 I start to talk about why I wanted to be Department chair, it may be helpful for me to give some background about the role of a Department Chair. In some fields, especially in liberal arts, being the Department chair is a service that rotates among the more senior faculty. It is not a position of prestige, nor does it come with additional resources or administrative supplements; in fact, some faculty grudgingly take the role on. However, in medical fields and public health, Department chair positions are typically advertised nationally, and usually candidates are brought in from outside of the University to interview. A new chair can often negotiate for fairly substantive resources for a variety of purposes, such as: to support their own research, to build research/infrastructure in the department, to support departmental educational programs or for recruiting and retaining faculty. This infusion of resources can be a lifeline for a struggling department, and a boon for already healthy departments. I’m in the latter situation – I was recruited externally and was able to successfully negotiate for resources to help both my own research and the Department (in several ways).

Now, why would anyone want to do this job? It is often a thankless job, and chair4a lot of what a chair does is solving problems (mostly other people’s problems). It is very much middle management – you have responsibility for managing the departmental faculty, staff and students, but are subject to the contstraints that the Dean places on you, as well as everyone else above her. It can take its toll on other aspects of your career, and can wear down even those with the best of intentions.

So, why would anyone want to do this job? First of all, we all have different strengths – and the best path to career success is to make choices that play to our strengths. Some of my strengths also happen to be skills that contribute to being a good chair: I am highly organized, I am an effective problem solver and I am good at helping others find their best career path.

Another way to have a successful career is to do what you enjoy. When I mentor junior faculty, I always tell them to “do what they love and the rest will follow.” If we spend the majority of our time trying to do something we don’t enjoy, in the end, will it matter if we’re successful? chair2Do more of what you enjoy so that you enjoy more of what you do. So, I am fortunate that the things I do as an administrator are also things I enjoy. I enjoy networking and “academic matchmaking” – helping others build their networks. I enjoy mentoring and teaching, and really enjoy helping others celebrate their successes. And I love to tell other people what to do. This is a skill I’ve honed as a wife and mother. I’m still trying to figure out how to get other people to listen to me, though… No really… Did you hear what I just said?!

So, when I put together the things I am good at with the things I enjoy doing, there was never much doubt that I would move into an administrative role. Except that I really enjoy research and love teaching, and moving into an administrative role would mean giving up some of each. In fact, during my interview for my current position, I was asked (in so many words) whether I felt that I was too young to be a chair (actual question: “Do you feel it is too early in your career to move into a chair role?”). Because a chair often has to sacrifice the other aspects of their career, this is a somewhat fair question. I say somewhat because I felt at the time, and still do, that it was the job of the interviewers to evaluate whether I was qualified to do the job I was interviewing for, and the job of the interviewee (me) to decide whether it would be premature for me to sacrifice my research and teaching efforts for a chair position. Anyway, my response was: “If you would have asked me 20 years ago, when I was still a graduate student, what I’d be doing in 20 years, I’d have said that I’d be a Department Chair. It is what I’ve always known I’d someday do – it uses my strengths and allows me to do what I enjoy doing.” This was not a lie, or an answer made up to sound impressive, or so that I’d get offered the job (although I did get offered the job!). This is the truth. I’ve spent my career preparing myself for this job.

Rewind 20 years. When I was getting my Master’s degree, I organized the Biostatistics Student Organization in my department. It still exists and thrives today. When I was getting my PhD, I served on university-wide committees, I again helped to organize the students, and I helped to develop and teach a new course for our incoming students. As a student, I was already doing university service and curriculum development. I was preparing to be a Chair someday.
Fast forward to my first tenure track position. Within a year of joining the faculty, I became involved with the Graduate Program Committee – more curriculum dchair3evelopment, as well as learning about admissions, qualifying exams, and other aspects of running a graduate program. Four years later, I was directing the graduate program. This was
intentional on my part. I sought out the position, when the person in that role left for a different University. Some thought it was too soon, that I shouldn’t do it – one person who was in a leadership role in my department came and told me that it was too soon and that I wouldn’t be able to handle it along with my other responsibilities (I was pre-tenure at the time). I was lucky to have a chair who supported me and put his faith in me. I did it, and I did it well – the naysayer actually came back a year later, after I was making positive changes in the graduate program (and now promoted and tenured) and told me he was wrong. I knew I would be good at it. Not because of my ego, but because I know my strengths, and I knew that I had the skills necessary to do that job well.

A few years later, the Section Head position came open in my Department. I was asked to do it, and was hesitant – not because I didn’t think I could do it well, but because of the state of my department at the time. I was hesitant to get involved with some political “stuff” that was going on; however, in the end, I was convinced and again feel that I did a good job, making positive changes for the faculty in the section.
Which brings us to last year, when I made a very conscious decision to accept a position as a chair. I worked hard to get here – this is what I wanted to do. And I think I’m good at it, but only time will tell, in the long run. I don’t think this was a case of “academic affluenza” – that I reached a plateau in my career and was looking for what was next. I do think this was a very intentional path that I chose to follow, mainly because it pairs my strengths nicely with the things I enjoy doing. Like a nice wine with a good stinky cheese. And I’ll let you decide who’s the wine and who’s the stinky cheese in this scenario.chair1
As for where I go from here, I’ve already been asked if I want to be a Dean someday. The truth is, I really like being a Department Chair so far, and I haven’t planned anything further except for the goals I’d like to accomplish with my Department in the next few years. I have work to do. Hard work. And I plan to have fun doing it.

Biostatistics IS Public Health!

This week, I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Tom Farley speak to our school’s incoming students about his book Saving Gotham, A Billionaire Mayor, Activist Doctors, and the Fight for 8 Million Lives. As part of our orientation activities, we assigned the students to read Dr. Farley’s book about the monumental strides New York City took to improve the public’s health. If you’re not from these here parts, you may not know that Dr. Farley served as the NYC Health Commissioner from 2009-2014 under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He is now the Philadelphia Health Commissioner and is also an amazing resource for our School of Public Health.

The book, an exciting work of non-fiction, chronicles the NYC Health Department’s efforts to reduce the rates of smoking, limit the intake of salt and sugar, and eliminate trans fats (among other programs) in NYC. The stories Dr. Farley tells, and the characters in them, unfold as if reading fiction, except that these stories really happened, and these characters actually made them happen. As I read the book, I couldn’t wait to find out what was going to happen, even though I already knew what happened. I could recall the late-night comedians ridiculing the Mayor’s efforts to reduce sugar-sweetened beverage intake, and remember when calorie labeling on menus went into effect. The work done by the NYC Health Department during that time was incredible – important life-saving and precedent setting efforts. It was public health at its finest (editors note: some could argue the health department was overreaching their authority – this is a topic for another time!). Many themes emerged from the book. You can pick your favorite for discussion: leadership, politics, teamwork. However, what was most striking to me was the display of how truly interdisciplinary real public health is. Not a single one of these policy changes (or proposed changes) could have happened without a diverse team of public health professionals: folks who analyze the scientific data, someone to translate the research into lives saved; an expert in policy development; someone who could work with the communities to implement changes; someone to hold focus groups and someone else to analyze the outcomes from those focus groups… the list could go on and on. In order to effect change, each public health discipline is equally important.

So what? We all know that the world is becoming more interdisciplinary, right? Maybe… while I was reading this book, there was also a very important discussion circulating among the Chairs of Biostatistics Departments about the role of statistics in public health. Recently, the Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH), the accrediting body for Schools of Public Health, presented the proposed revised criteria for accreditation. While setting out to  develop criteria that get away from the five core disciplines of public health, and moving towards criteria that allow flexibility and creativity in curriculum (both of which are good things), CEPH has essentially erased Biostatistics from their accreditation criteria (NOT a good thing). This is of great concern to many of us, because if the accrediting body ceases to recognize Biostatistics as a core component of a public health education, where does that leave us? I’ll come back to that question.biostatistics-is-public-health

For many years, I have jokingly referred to Biostatistics as the “bastard child” of public health. Biostatisticians are not like their colleagues in other public health disciplines in a lot of ways. Students receiving MS or PhD degrees in biostatistics don’t typically have to take courses in the breadth of public health disciplines, like Master’s of Public Health students do. Among faculty, it is unusual for a biostatistician to get a large grant for which they’re the primary investigator – often their PIships come from methods grants that are typically smaller in dollar amounts or they are funded through collaborative research. It is also typical for a biostatistician to have many fewer first authored manuscripts in methodological areas, and perhaps many more second authored manuscripts in which they act as the collaborating statistician. Some biostatisticians find their collaborators mainly in medical schools or cancer centers, and some biostatistics departments are located in these clinical departments or divisions. However, there are many, many Biostatisticians who are true public health professionals – developing methods or collaborating on studies that are concerned with addressing public health challenges. I believe that most of my colleagues would consider themselves public health professionals, I certainly do (even though a good portion of my collaborations are clinical). Because what we do is integral to the process of improving the health of the public. And this has only become more and more evident through these discussions among the chairs, the activities we’ve been conducting among our students, and my day-to-day life interacting with the faculty in my school.

Despite biostatistics’ differences from other public health disciplines, biostatistics is an integral part of the field. Biostatisticians are trained to help translate data into answers (see a great interview here about what biostatisticians do and how biostatistics fits into public health), through the appropriate application of statistical methods. But biostatisticians can (and do) do much more than that. Biostatisticians can help determine appropriate data collection instruments, ensure appropriate data collection methods, and assess whether outcomes are suitable for answering the questions of interest. To be clear, there are many public health professionals who are not trained in biostatistics who have many of these skills as well. However, beyond that, as the field of public health grows and the questions we are trying to answer become more complicated, the methods we are currently using may no longer fit the questions we ask. Biostatisticians have a large role in developing new methods to address the increasingly complicated public health questions. Without biostatistics, public health will stagnate.

So back to the question – where does this omission of biostatistics from the CEPH guidelines leave us? Our first step is to try to modify the proposed guidelines to be more inclusive – many of the biostatistics Chairs submitted comments to the CEPH council and we produced letters signed by the many of the Chairs, and the Presidents of the American Statistical Association (ASA) and the East North American Region of the International Biometrics Society (ENAR). Talking points for conversations with Deans were developed, and plans to continue discussions among the Chairs were made. These strides are important and hopefully will have impact on the guidelines, but if they don’t, the results could be disastrous for public health. As public health becomes more interdisciplinary, it is important to ensure that each discipline continues to grow, or there is a real danger that biostatistics could lose its identity. And that would be a shame, because biostatistics is public health.

Happy Anniversary to ME!

If you’ve followed my blog, you know that I experienced a very severe bout of depression a little over 10 years ago (if you haven’t read it, you should… ). This illness occurred, likely coincidentally, during a transitional time in my life, as I was making the transition from a graduate student to a tenure-track assistant professor. After 1 year in that position, I wanted to kill myself. Literally. There is no clear cause of depression; certainly there are chemical imbalances that play a role, but it is unknown what triggers instigate bouts of depression. I really don’t know what my trigger was at that time, but I had always feared that the major transition in my life played a role. This fear haunted me as I went through the process of interviewing for my current position, moving and getting settled in. In fact, all the academic aspects of being a Department Chair didn’t frighten me as much as the fear that my depression would return.

And now, here I am 1 year into my new job – Happy Anniversary to Me! And it couldn’t have gone better! Rather than hiding under my desk crying, I am welcoming 3 new faculty to my Department! Rather than barely making it through the day, I’m excited to get out of bed in the morning to learn what awaits me at work. That’s not to say that there haven’t been challenges and that it is all flowers and rainbows. But overall, it has been an exciting year, during which I have learned an incredible amount.DSC_0224

Some of the lessons I’ve learned are very specific to my institution, like the process for approving grant proposals, how to approve time-off requests, how to approve expense reports (Department Chairs do a lot of approving!). But others are more about academic life in general – things I wish someone had told me about being a Department Chair, and things I wish someone had told me about being a good faculty member. Not to say that I wasn’t a good faculty member before, but there are things I could have done to be better.

Once upon a time, I loved email – when I first met my now husband back in the early 90s, email was new to us and was a fun way to communicate. I loved going to the computer lab to see if I had any new email and was always disappointed if I didn’t. I’ve always thought I was good about returning emails, and I realize now how important it is to reply to emails. However, I’ve grown to HATE email! I hate, hate, hate it! (I know, as my husband likes to reminds me, it isn’t nice to hate.) But email has become the primary means for communicating these days (for us old people, at least) which means that I receive a lot more email every day that I need to deal with, but also that I send a lot more email every day that I expect others to deal with. In both instances, the process of actual work can stop if one party does not respond. Luckily, I had been adequately prepared for the increased volume of emails that I would be receiving, so I wasn’t so surprised by that. However, I always thought that everyone else was as good about returning emails as I am, and wasn’t prepared for how I needed to compensate for those who aren’t.

Something else I was not prepared for was how lonely I would feel in this position. I was at my former institution for 11 years and had built a huge community there. Last fall, I went back for a research meeting, and could not walk down the street without running into someone I know. A benefit of that was that if I needed a statistical consult, or if I felt overwhelmed and needed to get some reassurance that everything would be okay, or even if I just wanted someone to go to lunch with, I knew who I could ask – different people for each of these, possibly, but all those roles were filled. Even as my role in the Department changed, my relationships with my colleagues were solid and I was able to easily balance my leadership responsibilities with my professional support system.

However, I’ve come into my new position new to my institution. I really like the faculty in my Department, but I haven’t had the benefit of “growing up” with them academically. While I realize it takes time to build the types of relationships I had previously, I also am cognizant of the fact that my relationship with the faculty in my Department is a little different. If I want to complain about something that happens in a Department meeting, I can’t always do so with them. If I need to get advice about a personnel issue, I have to be careful what I say and to whom I say it. One solution I’ve found for this is to build a different type of network – I have a monthly breakfast with the other department chairs in my school (there are 4 of us total), and have just started having lunch with a few other department heads outside of my school. And I need to practice patience – my relationships with the faculty in my Department are starting to grow, and I know that in time my loneliness will dissipate. Plus, my department has a great staff who I share my office suite with, and they are always wiling to help cure my loneliness (even if they don’t know that they’re doing it!).

This last year hasn’t been easy – there has been a tremendous amount of new things I’ve had to learn, both because I’m at a new institution and also because I’m in a new role. I’ve actually enjoyed this very much – I often say that I’m in academics because I love to learn new things, and this was the only way I could stay a student forever. While some of the things I’ve had to learn have been monotonous, others have been hard lessons about dealing with very personal issues. I’ve had the great fortune to hire 3 new faculty, but this also meant I had the extremely difficult job of telling very well-qualified candidates, who I really got to know and came to like very much, that I wasn’t going to be able to hire them. I had a long-standing adjunct stop teaching for our department, in part because I was unwilling to provide a substantive salary increase (I think), and had to scramble to find someone to teach a class this fall. I’ve made choices that I know haven’t always pleased everyone, but I feel confident that I’ve made those choices with the best intentions and the belief that they are the best for our Department. And I know that I’ve made mistakes – all leaders do, we ALL do– and I hope that I’ve learned from those mistakes and moved on.

As I face my second year as Chair, I know there will be many more challenges, and also much more learning. I’m looking forward to new things, such as teaching my first undergraduate class in my professional career; in collaboration with my department, developing a PhD program in Biostatistics; and advising my first doctoral student since I arrived. I also get to begin my fall with the annual reviews with the faculty and staff, a process that isn’t always easy, but I enjoy because it provides an opportunity to connect with each person individually and discuss their accomplishments and goals. It is also a time for me to reflect on what I’ve accomplished, and to set some goals for myself and my department. I look forward to reflecting back on those goals in a year, hopefully with the same enthusiasm for moving forward that I have now.


My name is StatGirl and I’m a teach-a-holic

I have a confession to make. I love teaching. And as we approach the start of a new school year, I’m getting ready to teach a new class – an undergraduate biostatistics class to public health majors. This is in stark contrast to anything I have ever taught in my professional career, as I have only taught graduate courses, often advanced doctoral-level classes. My only previous experience teaching undergraduates was over 20 years ago when I was an undergrad myself, teaching introduction to algebra and college algebra to other undergrads. As I’ve been struggling to find time to prepare my syllabus, I got to thinking about teaching in a research world. Many biostatisticians are extremely research-active, often covering high proportions of their salaries through grant funding. This impacts the time available to teach, both from a practical and from a legal perspective. If you are spending 90% of your time on research, then theoretically, it is illegal (andhours worked by academic rank_1 sometimes impossible) to spend more than 10% of your time on teaching. Of course, there is no actual definition of the denominator – academic workload is not always based on a 40-hour workweek: some estimates indicate that academics spend 50-60 hours per week working (although Chairs report the fewest hours worked, Whoohoo!), with some faculty reporting up to 80 hour workweeks! (NOTE: no comment on the quality of some of these charts, which I would never let my students/mentees/coauthors/friends/kids present, but you get the idea).

Teaching requirements differ from institution to institution, and also depend on other expectations. At my former institution, most faculty averaged about 1.5 classes per year in my department, but expectations were that you would cover a very high proportion of your salary through external funding (>70%). If your funding dropped, you could expect to teach more; in fact, more teaching was often seen as a punishment for not doing enough research. However, in my previous department, those who were successful as researchers also often (but not always) really enjoyed teaching, leading to very long hours during semesters while teaching, since the research responsibilities didn’t stop – or even slow down.

At my current institution, the workload policy specifies that teaching activities should account for about 50% of a tenure track faculty member’s effort (research is assigned 30% effort). This translates into about 4 quarter-classes per year for a 12-month appointed faculty member, plus advising students, course development and other teaching activities. Research-active faculty can buy out of a class with an additional 15% research funding; administrative responsibilities also lessen the teaching load. Since I’m just now completing my first year here, I still don’t have a good sense for how the faculty feel about this balance – and since I haven’t taught yet, I don’t have my own perspective. However, my research effort is already approaching 50%, so I already know that I will be working like a crazy woman this quarter.

ecardThese expectations are very different from those of tenure track faculty in primarily teaching institutions, where teaching loads still vary considerably, but can be as high as 4 classes in a single term across each term. There is little data available about what is “typical” from any institution, regardless of whether it is a research-intensive university or a small liberal arts college. Each institution has their own policy, some formal, others ad hoc.

It is also difficult to ascertain how much time is actually spent on teaching activities among tenure track faculty. One small study  at a single doctoral-granting institution published in 2014 (n=30) estimated that faculty spent 40% of their time on teaching-related activities. This is by no means generalizable – the institution at which this research was done is not as research active as many (237th in 2014 for total R&D expenditures), so this could be an overestimate for some. Very old data (1989) from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching showed that the more research funding at an institution, the less time spent on teaching activities, and that the emphasis on teaching-related activities during tenure and promotion is much lower for research-intensive institutions.


So, what do you do if you are at a research-intensive institution but love to teach? There is a lot of advice floating around the internet on this topic, including some that is repeated over and over in academics: “You will never get promoted based on good teaching alone, but being a bad teacher might keep you from getting promoted.” Add to the mix that it is difficult to measure effectiveness of teaching whereas it is much easier to quantify research productivity, and where does that leave us?

I often tell my mentees to do what they love and the rest will follow. If you are not having fun at work, you are wasting your time. If you are not going to get promoted doing what you have fun doing, you are not in the right place (others agree – see #7). If teaching is what you love, this may be a difficult pill to swallow – many faculty at research-intensive institutions train for decades in order to get tenure track positions. However, it is important to be in a place that fits with your goals and talents. I am not advocating quitting a tenure-track position just because you love teaching, but I am suggesting that you should evaluate your expectations and goals, and make sure they are in agreement with those of your chair and institution.

In my past life, I was at an institution that expected faculty to be at least 70% externally funded through grants, and I was routinely 85-90% funded. During my very first faculty meeting, my chair said that there was no reason we couldn’t be 95% funded and still teach.* As a tenure track faculty member, who also had a service requirement, I was floored… how could I be 95% funded, teach well, work with students, and also fulfill the service requirements for tenure? I also remember being told by a trusted mentor that it is okay to only give about 75% to my teaching – while I would know that I wasn’t giving it my all, my students just wouldn’t know the difference. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a teacher. For a semester in college, I was a Math Ed major, but eventually decided I wanted to teach college, which motivated me to get a PhD. Although I learned how much I enjoy research when I was in grad school, I always have, and always will, consider myself a teacher. So this news that students would not be able to tell how much effort I put into my classes was devastating to me. Despite this advice, I still threw myself into my teaching, teaching more than was expected and doing it well.

All these years later, I am still throwing myself in to my teaching. I’m extremely excited for my new challenge in the classroom, despite the time it will take away from other commitments, such as my research and my administrative responsibilities. Let alone the time it will take away from my family. It will be difficult, but I know it will be rewarding because I will be doing something I love, and hopefully I will make impact on the students. In the end, that will make it all worth it.

*Footnote: my chair was always very supportive of my desire to teach and to teach well, and I mean no disrespect to someone for whom I have the utmost respect!